Indigenous Rights, Title, and Sovereignty: is there a place for anthropologists?

I had the pleasure of participating in a plenary session of the CASCA 2015 annual meetings in Quebec City (May 13-16, 2015). Organized by Natacha Gagné & Sabrina Doyon (U. Laval), the session invited each participant to consider our (as anthropologists’) view of, and role, in politics. What follows below is an edited version of my speaking notes.

Additional context and background to this presentation can be found in two papers I have written:  Oil, Energy, and Anthropological Collaboration, and Standing on the Shore with Sabaan.  The first dissects the history of anthropological/Indigenous collaboration on the northwest coast.  The second examines the idea that anthropologists and anthropology must invert the gaze and stop using Indigenous peoples as data and our societies as laboratories.


When I began my journey into anthropology I used to say that while Anthropology was the methodology, Marxism was the discipline. For those trained in classic extra-parliamentary politics (and some Foucauldians) you will understand the multiple meanings. As I was professionalized I became beguiled by the idea of anthropology as discipline. Today, having shed many things, I have returned to the idea of anthropology as method.

I should also caution you that I have, to a large extent, left behind the study of anthropological subjects for the study of anthropologists. So, I suspect that as natives you [the audience] will find my generalizations, abstractions, and theorizing, disconcerting. You may only recognize figments of your selves in my words. As an Indigenous scholar I can appreciate your imminent surprise and disquiet. Yet, in your own words you hold power, you cherish ways of giving voice to the unvoiced.

So, here we go: I shall speak.

There are two public images of anthropology in North America:

One put forward by Florida Governor Rick Scott  (it’s a waste of time and money) and another promoted by New Age style populists who, like white knights to the rescue, race to save the hordes of endangered peoples, places, and languages.

Rick Scott understands the anthropological problem personally. His own daughter was a major. I can appreciate the father’s sense of anguish that one’s child will go down a rabbit hole of missed opportunities and wasted studies. Maybe he also watched the TV show “Community” and happened to catch that wonderful parody of an anth prof by Betty White. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you track it down: it’s worth it.

Scott’s point was that while a nice pastime, Anthropology doesn’t create jobs or build the economy. Anthropologists, understandably, reared up and said oh yes we do! And in so doing totally missed the point; we don’t actually build the neo-liberal economy or support the growth industry. We build something different. The response was predictable. The AAA’s letter to Scott summed it all up: “Perhaps you are unaware,” chided the AAA president Prof Dominguex, “ anthropologists are leaders in our nation’s top science fields, making groundbreaking discoveries in areas as varied as public health, human genetics, legal history, bilingualism, the African American heritage, and infant learning.”

Wow. That should set the governor in his place.

That answer, which was mirrored by YouTube videos, Tumblr pages, blogs, commentaries, across the US spilling over a bit into Canada as well, really did little to change the mind of Governor Scott.

Scott is not alone in this attitude. I can count among my extended family a great army of folks who share versions of  Governor Scott’s viewpoint. Even among the guild of anthropologists there is an underlying insecurity. Maybe, we worry,  there is no real value to the discipline: hence the many exhortations to make it count and to assert that one’s work is in fact making a difference.

Let’s not forget the other side of the public coin of imagination: the new age defenders who are valiantly selling coffee table books while saving the worlds languages, peoples, and special places. Whereas the Rick Scotts of the world focus on anthropology’s deficits (materially and figuratively), the new agers celebrate cultural diversity and their unique ability to translate this wonder of human diversity for the common man and woman.

“Renowned anthropologist’s first lecture earns applause and praise” begins the Vancouver Sun’s coverage of a recent appointment to UBC’s department of anthropology. “African voodoo, Haitian zombies, shamanic healing and a live demonstration of paralytic blow darts are all par for the course in [this]s first-year anthropology class.”

This is a kind of anthropology that captures public perception just as strongly as the Rick Scott version. It’s not that this type of anthropology builds the economy (at least not a wider public economy). This anthropology plays on populist and colonialist ideas of the noble savage, the wonder at the exotic, and the desire to possess the experience of difference.

Both public images of anthropology are partially correct. Perhaps guild members don’t like this representation, but a lot of mainstream anthropology is essentially locked within obscure debates (nothing in principle wrong with that) impenetrable to wider publics. The guild has deserted the main stage to the curators of cross-cultural exoticism. Charming crusaders stand on the stage in front of images of Indigenous peoples selling the masses an image of anthropology that makes the mainstream of the guild cringe.

That said I want to make clear that I do find value in a theoretically informed, content rich anthropology irrespective of whether it does anything practical or not. There is a place for an intellectual pursuit not constrained by the real politic of capitalism and related political struggles. I appreciate that my critique of theory rich anthropology can rankle. I also know that from time to time I also indulge in the delight of theory for theory sake. Today’s presentation, however,  is about the idea of a useful anthropology; anthropology that might make a difference.

Outside the mainstream of theorists and performers are a few of us whose membership in the guild harkens back to an earlier moment when we may well have used labels like science, objectives, and rigorous methodology in place of reflection, entanglement, or complicate.

We are a strange small corps of Canadian anthropologists who work preparing expert opinions and traditional use studies with and on behalf of First Nations in their struggle to defend their rights and title under Canadian law (I have for a moment excluded those working for the private sector proponents). Our work deploys ideas of thorough empirical content driven research. The ultimate audience for our work is the court.

The anthropological guild’s contemporary models and theories are unhelpful in this endeavor, potentially even antagonistic to FN rights & title. It doesn’t help securing Aboriginal Rights and Title if one’s model of culture is rooted in ideas of entanglement, hybridity, creolization, etc. Like it or lump it practitioners are working in a landscape of certitudes, objective facts, real data. All of which has serious real world implications for the communities concerned. So we have an obligation to think very carefully about what we have been asked (even told) to do. This is not simply a matter of one’s personal career; these reports are tiny pieces in a social drama that will affect the life outcome of many.

So, is there a space in this landscape for an autonomous academic research path?

The current context in work with Indigenous communities raises a question about the possibility of autonomous academic research. This is not to say there are no academics doing research: there are. This is not to say that each academic project is tied to a corporate or Indigenous agenda: it is not. This does say that most projects—archaeological, sociocultural, biological—are embedded in a compromised position, and as university researchers we need to be honest about this. Raymond Williams spoke about how social productions are aligned to particular structures of power. He described how social products (which we can understand as research, reports, and publications) are necessarily aligned to the dominant social order. As producers of these works either we find ourselves unconsciously accepting our social location within the fields of power or we take a position of self-conscious alignment.

I would suggest that a good number of academic researchers have abdicated their own responsibility to self-consciously acknowledge their positionality by hiding behind a veil of collaborative, community-based research. In so doing they forge alliances with “their” community, ignore research that contradicts their own community’s outlook, but then consider their work autonomous and objectively located above the fray of the corporate-counterpoint conflicts. That is, they act as though their own work is objective and somehow located outside of real contemporary struggles and conflicts. We can see this in a persistent academic orthodoxy that has emerged on the North Coast.

Finding a way out of such situations is difficult. I know. I personally have to deal with similar pressures in my own work on the North Coast. It’s not that people try to compel conclusions directly—they don’t—but one does know what it is they hope for. It takes a certain resolve to stand up in front of a room of hereditary leaders and offer a report that may not be to their liking. However, to be an effective resource and a true collaborative partner one must be willing to be honest and direct.

I suspect that my social location as Tsimshian, with real roots in the North Coast, gives me a perspective that provides guidance to my academic training. My academic training also provides guidance and context to my Tsimshian perspectives. This hybridized social location simultaneously positions me as outsider and insider. I am in this sense able to equivocate between perspectives. It is not always a comfortable position. It does, however, provide a vantage point to see that others, without social ties in the Tsimshain world, worry they are vulnerable to exclusion and desperately want to find their place on a team. Thus they blind themselves to their own engagement in the production of stories that masquerade as objectivist academic publications.

Many years ago Del Jones critiqued the naiveté of the outsiders coming to do “research for the community.” But who was the community? How did the outsider choose between factions within the community? Did the outsider even understand that such factions exist? How do these choices (made unwittingly or otherwise) shape the outsider’s alliances with other researchers? One of the inopportune lessons taken from the radical critique of anthropology is that all research must be for the community, even when the researcher has no understanding of whom or what might in fact constitute “the community.”

Academic research in decolonizing contexts will necessarily be embedded in current and historical conflicts and struggles. Claiming that one community has authorized a project does not negate the possibility that another community is opposed to the same project. Even within a particular community, the existence of factions and divisions will productively suggest the real possibility that “the community” is itself a figment of the researcher’s imagination. Ultimately, the obligation rests with the academic researcher to acknowledge and identify the ways in which one’s own work is embedded and aligned with local and larger social forces. To ignore that and to imply that one’s work is simply a matter of evidence and testing reveals a kind of intellectual bankruptcy.

Increasingly Anglo-Canadian anthropology is practiced by a guild that is more and more controlled by people dislocated from the places they work, by the performers of exotica, and by the corporate managers who have taken hold of our universities.

As a discipline anthropology has no agency, no unifying mission, no manifest destiny to be the universal comparative science.  As method, as part of a social tool kit, anthropology does has a place within the landscape of Indigenous North America. For the moment anthropologists need to set aside any naive belief in a capacity to conduct autonomous research or that they build local capacity through their own research. The value of anthropology is as method operating under the discipline of Indigenous peoples.





Grades: “in full honesty, my paper deserves a better grade.”

Late December brings the sound of jingle bells, carols, and grade appeals. It’s a seasonal thing that returns again just after the Easter Bunny has handed out chocolate eggs.

Let me first highlight the positive. Alongside of grade appeals, requests for clarifications or outright indignation, faculty also receive cards of thanks, emails of appreciation, and the occasional modest gift. There are students who make an effort to express their thanks for the opportunity to learn. These expressions are all very much appreciated. In fact, they go a long way to offset the worry we experience as faculty when the grade appeal season get started

Between the end of a course and the submission of final grades there is a brief moment of calm. There was a time when grades were posted on paper outside a faculty member’s office. The time involved in making one’s way back to campus to check the grade, separating the submission of a grade and a student’s awareness of it by days or weeks rather than minutes, allowed a period of reflection that forestalled rash responses. Email has created a more immediate reaction. I will often get queries mere moments after the grades are posted online.

In math, chemistry, or physics grades can be presented and determined with a more objective tone and complexion then seems to be the case in the social sciences. That said, most social science faculty members do use clear and transparent marking rubrics. Most of us make a serious effort to lay out evaluation criteria in our course outlines. But that doesn’t ever seem to stop the modest flood of critique and appeals that we receive around the end of term.

There are times when grading has been too severe (also too easy). In my large classes where I work with teaching assistants I make a point to ensure that from a meta level the grades produced by each marker are consistent across the entire class. I personally check low and high grades and a few in between from each individual marker’s portfolio. In classes that I mark myself I double check each grade assigned to ensure that I have been consistent. All this is to try to reduce any potential errors, omissions, or unfairness in marking. Just the same, there are almost always queries and occasional mistakes do slip in.

There are three basic approaches that students take toward grade appeals.

  • There must be something wrong
  • I am confused about how you arrived at my grade
  • Can you explain how I could do better next time

Each of these approaches telegraphs a specific message.

The first approach is essentially an outright challenge (except in the cases when there is indeed something wrong). Students should use the first form of complaint sparingly. Check and double check before you speak to a prof with this approach. We are human and, as humans, do make mistakes from time to time. But proceed with caution.

“I am confused” is often a very sincere response. Typically the student who professes confusion has handed in work that is of middling quality. This is the normal type of work they do and for some profs they get good grades and others they get worse grades. Students have a right to feel confused. I share your confusion with colleagues who took the easy path, gave you a B+ or an A in their course, and thereby avoided having to meet with you to explain why they “only” gave you a C+ or B- (which very likely is what you should have been given). Truth is, we don’t do you any favour by giving you a high grade when what you really deserved was a grade that said good job, you met the criteria: C+. But in today’s world everyone wants an A (even if folks have forgotten what is involved in getting one). This is part of a grade inflation trend that is hard to escape from.

“Can you explain what I can do next time” has two variants: the sincere and the passive aggressive. The passive aggressive variant is a modified version of “there must be something wrong.” This student is concerned about upsetting the prof so settles upon the neutral “can you tell me what I could do next time approach.” Yet, lurking beneath the surface is a feeling that the prof did it wrong and the student wants her/him to figure it out and correct it. Unlike the sincere variant, the passive aggressive variant of this trope typically won’t relent and sometimes will, in a moment of exasperation, shift into the “there must be something wrong with how this was marked” style. The key indicator here is that the student will repeat a stock set of questions that inevitably circle back onto their idea that their paper was not correctly evaluated.

The sincere student is trying to figure things out. They are less interested in the grade then they are in learning the material and how to be an effective student. They may simply not understand how to differentiate between a modest quality of output and a high quality of output. The sincere student may also confuse the quantity of labour invested into an assignment or studying with the quality of time (in fact many studnets make this mistake). There is a useful concept called “socially necessary labour time.” Defined as: “The labour-time required to produce any use-value under the conditions of production normal for a given society and with the average degree of skill and intensity of labour prevalent in that society.” What does this have to do with grades? Simple: quantity of effort expended does not equal quality of output produced. That is, one doesn’t deserve a high grade simply because one spent the most time they ever had doing this assignment. The trick is to balance the amount of work required with the desired outcome in a way that conforms to the standard quantity of time a competent student spends completing a particular assignment.

Ultimately focusing on grades deflects a student from the fundamental idea of learning. It is a lot to ask of students (given our societies’ hyper-concern with evaluation, ranking, and grading) to focus on learning as opposed to grades. Why should a student be any different then other people – grades are unfortunately seen as measures of worth and as a kind of capital used to buy privileged positions in society? My answer is that learning is not always reflected in grades. Ideally I would remove scarcity based grading (which is what I call current models) and shift to a more qualitative form of assessment that measured a students learning in terms of how their understanding of a subject evolved, where did a student start? How has their understanding and knowledge expanded? What new process skills have they learned? Can they demonstrate these new skills and new understandings in novel settings?   Grades are one small measure and a decade or more after this class is over I doubt a student will remember the grade they got. They might recall a classmate, a discussion, a particular reading or lecture. That is ultimately what is most important.


ANTH 220: First Nations BC (2015). Audio Lectures

Posted here are a selection of lectures from my 2015 version of ANTH 220 (outline).  Since 1996 I have taught this course in a number of variations.  In 2015 I added in discussions of issues concerned with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  The overall narrative arc of the course begins with a brief introduction to our Indigenous reality (today and in the past).  From here we proceed through the issues of colonialization, industrial development, and then to the disposition that is endemic to settler capitalism. Finally we end with a consideration of the question of sovereignty versus reconciliation.  The final lecture focussed on the excellent book by UBC prof Glen Coulthard.  I highly recommend the book as a fieldguide for the struggle ahead!

January 12, 2015 First Nations in BC, opening engagements and issues.

January 19, 2015 Adawk (history) and initial encounters

January 21, 2015 Kitsumkalum and the industrial economy

February 2, 2015 Monkey Beach, by Eden Robinson

March 2, 2015 lecture on Ronald Niezen’s book, Truth and Indignation.

March 11, 2015  Overview of course themes/content to date

March 13, 2015  Treaties since the establishment of the BC Treaty Commission

March 16, 2015 Impact Benefit Agreements (part 1) – the Industry perspective

March 18, 2015 Impact Benefit Agreements (part 2) – alternatives and implications.

March 20, 2015  Co-operative Management Agreements – an effective alternative(?)

March 23, 2015 Indigenous Marine Use Planning: Gitxaała example (content originally prepared by Caroline Butler, GEM. Presentation reflects Menzies’ interpretation).

March 25, 2015.  BC Heritage Act as an Example of Actually Existing Colonialism.

March 27, 2015. BC Heritage Act, con’t and a comment on collaborative research.

April 1, 2015. A consideration of Glen Coulthard’s book, Red Skins, White Masks.